A family finds more than just a great destination in the South Pacific (published July 2013)
I had flown into Samoa from Hawaii with my two children expecting to see my husband and our boat Sundance, an old Swan 48, arrive within a couple of days. This was the beginning of our planned South Pacific journey, a trip that started in Honolulu, meandered through the western South Pacific islands, and ended in Vanuatu almost two years later.
Unfortunately, the first leg of the trip was a long three-week passage south from Hawaii, across the equator and the squalls of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) and into Western Samoa. Having done this passage once before without children, we decided to spare our young ones the very real discomfort of such a trip, so my husband found crew in Honolulu and we flew to Apia to wait for them.
They were late. Without a SAT phone or onboard email, the only way we could keep track of them was on Pangolin.co.nz, a New Zealand-based website used by offshore cruisers to post their location. Participating yachts on Pangolin radio in their position at a fixed time every day and their “track,” including location coordinates, speed and course. The information is then posted online for family and friends to monitor. According to the positioning report, Sundance had been proceeding smoothly from Honolulu via Fanning Island toward Samoa, averaging 150 nautical miles per day. They were at sea now for 18 days, but then the last two days they had almost come to a stop. They were becalmed somewhere between the Tokelau’s and Samoa. What was going on, and why weren’t they using the engine?
I checked their position twice a day on the Internet from the inn where we were staying and the last report showed them just 40 nautical miles north of Apia. I reckoned that even at two knots, they would be on the horizon by 8:00 p.m. the next night. So my kids and I wiled away the next morning, and then sat watch on the waterfront porch of the inn waiting to see a white sail on the otherwise empty blue horizon.
At 5:00 p.m. I saw something. It must be them! It was mid-June, still early in the season for cruisers to be arriving in Samoa. Sure enough, they arrived just after dusk at around 7:00 p.m., but under tow by the harbormaster. The engine had failed three days prior, they were becalmed and slowly made it through the doldrums, then finally into Apia Harbor after 21 days at sea.
After my husband recovered from the long passage, we undertook trying to find someone to repair the engine. Little did we know that we would be in Apia for three months, waiting to get parts and workers to repair the exhaust system. After a few frustrating weeks of delays, we got accustomed to the repair work moving on island-time, and since we did not have a fixed itinerary except to be somewhere safe when cyclone season hit in four months, we relaxed and started to explore the island.
Our boat was docked at the newly built marina, within walking distance of Apia town, the capital of independent (formerly Western) Samoa. During these months we got to know some local families through the church, were invited to Sunday family pig-roasts by our Samoan boat mechanic and sent our kids to a local kindergarten. We also spent time exploring the town, the museums and the many markets, especially the crafts market, where my husband fell in love with kava bowls.
He’s always been interested in local crafts, but collecting kava bowls became an obsession. At the market we talked to sellers of kava bowls and learned the intricacies of preparing them; the selecting the best wood, curating of the wood in swamp water and the traditional carving techniques. This is also where we heard of the famous carvers of Uafato—traditional carvers who lived in a remote village in the northeast corner of the island where the hardwood Ifilele tree grows. Ifilele is the Samoan name for the Ironwood tree, a wood much prized by local carvers for its fine grain and durability. When some fellow cruisers showed us their beautiful hand-carved kava bowl from Uafato, my husband’s eyes glazed over with envy and I knew we too would soon be heading to Uafato.
Reading up on Uafato in the Lonely Planet Guide to the Samoan Islands and Tonga, we learned that the village is located in a conservation area, “containing some of the island’s wildest and least-visited terrain, an area where an intact band of ancient rainforest stretches from the sea to the interior uplands”…“you can reach Uafato by the rough track (notice they do not say road) that winds around the uplands of Fagaloa Bay”…“but we wouldn’t advise going without a high clearance vehicle.” I don’t think our subcompact rental car fit into this category and I don’t think going in the rainy season helped either. Nonetheless, we packed our family into the mini-car early one morning, map and mosquito repellant in hand, to find Uafato.
IN SEARCH OF KAVA BOWLS
As soon as we hit Falefa Falls on Le Mafa Pass Road, the area where the paved road turned to mud, my mood changed from adventurous to one of slight trepidation. We were now on the dotted-line road that says, “4W drive only” on the maps. As we turned off the main road and headed up steeply into the verdant wet jungle, on a very rocky and potted road with 20 kilometers to go, I said, “are you sure we want to do this?” My husband, remembering his solo two-month trek across the outback of Australia in a dilapidated station wagon, sleeping under the stars, a nightly ration of firewood tied to the roof of the car said, “piece of cake.”
And so we kept going. It was bumpy and narrow and muddy, and there were points when I thought our little car was out of its league, especially when we came to the river. It was probably once a healthy stream, but with the rainy season underway it had rapidly taken on new dimensions. We had to stop. Off to the right of us, upstream just a few yards were a handful of young teen boys smiling, laughing and bathing, bar of soap in hand, in a pool of deep water. Directly in front of the car though was a shallower pass across some flat rocks, obviously the best place for the road to pass over.
We got out of the car and looked at the boys inquisitively, they laughed and said, “Go! Go! Ok! Ok!” We laughed and smiled back, but measured the water depth with a stick anyway; it was only about a foot and half deep over the rocks. I envisioned the car engine flooding and stalling in this amount of water, but the width of the stream was not great, so we could probably make it. We got back in and headed across at a sane clip, fast enough not to stall, but slow enough not to ruin the undercarriage on the rocks. To great cheers from the group of boys, we crossed and proceeded on to Uafato. After a couple hours of brain-rattling bumps and general slow going, we arrived around mid-day.
Uafato lies on a tranquil inland bay of water and with about a dozen typical Samoan homes; one large room built up from the ground, open to the breeze, colorful fabric used as wall decoration and as sleeping covers. Woven mats are used at night to sleep on and then rolled up to accommodate daily activities.
It seemed awfully quiet when we arrived and a few small children came out cautiously to see us. We stopped the car, turned off the motor and smiled at the kids, our kids smiled too, wanting to make friends. We did not seem very menacing, this family of white folks, and one lone woman came out to greet us. We explained that we had been told of the famous wood carvers of Uafato and had made the trip from Apia to see the village and to perhaps buy a kava bowl or have one carved for us. “Oh”, she said, her facial expression showing some concern, “but today is Friday, all the men, all the carvers are in Apia at the market today. They go every Friday to sell the kava bowls at the market. This is too bad that you made the long trip today. I am sorry for you.”
My husband and I turned and looked at each other with that “oh ****” kind of expression, but in the presence of others, we held our laughs to smirks and our disappointment to shrugs. In a last ditch effort to salvage the day, we asked if there were any kava bowls in the village for sale. But, alas, all the kava bowls were at the market, only the family kava bowls were here and they were not for sale.
But the village was happy to see us, and to see we had a car. There were two schoolteachers who needed a ride back to town after a week of teaching at the village. We were asked if we could take the teachers back with us and were told they would be ready shortly. “Sure, we don’t have much room in the car” we said, “but we’ll squeeze them in.” After a few minutes we turned our heads to see the two teachers coming our way, both nicely dressed in typical Samoan attire—women in ankle-length floral cotton skirt and top called a puletasi, men in floral shirt and dark pants or a mid-calf skirt. They were all smiles, and all Samoan, in stature that is.
Samoans tend to be big people, and this was our proof, trying to fit two Samoans, my husband and me, and two children into a car the size of a go-cart was going to prove interesting. We plied and shifted around a lot and finally decided to put the youngish man upfront in the passenger seat, the woman in the back next to me (she took up more than half of the back seat) and one kid on each of my two legs. Great, I thought, “only 20 km of rugged mountain road, and a river to cross, and already the blood is draining from my legs.”
Then it started to rain and the windshield clouded up instantly as we all breathed in the matchbox-sized car. And since it was too much to ask the car, already lumbering under a half-ton of human flesh, to do something difficult like defrost the windshield, we kept the windows down. It rained on us as we talked and laughed our way back to Apia, to the market to buy a kava bowl.
When we finally left Samoa in late September with our reconstructed exhaust system, we had a kava bowl from Uafato, a kava bowl from our boat mechanic and many wonderful memories of the very gracious and hospitable Samoan people.
Trish Zumstein Ermini, with her husband has cruised the South Pacific extensively aboard their old Swan 48 Sundance. They live in Marblehead, Mass.
Marina and anchorages:
In early 2008, a newly built marina opened in Apia to host the many cruisers stopping in Samoa on their westward/southward journeys. The marina is a good news/bad news situation: it has had problems with erratic dredging (though we hear this has been fixed); it can be expensive if you stay for long periods (US$13-19 per day depending on the length of your boat); and they have lots of rules and regulations. This year “phase 2” of the marina should be opening with new berths, and new restaurants and shops.
If you abide by the marina rules however, you will have a nice stay and enjoy the electrical hook ups (240V, 3-prong plug adaptors supplied by the marina) and water supply, toilet, trash and showers facilities. You’ll also have a nice view of Apia town and the empty harbor, which comes to life in August and September for the long-boat canoe races, and the Teuila Festival.
Anchorages: you are not allowed to anchor in Apia harbor if your boat is less than 20 to 30 meters, only very large sailboats or schooners are allowed to anchor outside the marina. You will need permission from the Prime Minister’s office to anchor anywhere else around the main island of ‘Upolu or the other western Samoan islands of Savaii, Apolima and Manono.
Although there are a couple of anchorages on neighboring Savaii Island, I would highly dissuade you from going with your boat into Salelologa harbor. This minuscule anchorage is also the landing area for the local ferry and big swells push through the channel between the neighboring islands of Apolima and Manono. We spent one long night in Salelologa Harbor (Savaii) and wished we hadn’t. Take a ferry over from ‘Upolu if you want to see Savaii.
Groceries and Laundry: there are a few large food stores in Apia town (one where you can buy in bulk from an order counter). One is Farmer Joes’ across the street from the produce market called Maketi Fou. There is a very good fish market near the western end of town on the wharf. Stop at the market on Beach road for some delicious warm cinnamon bread made daily.
Near the marina is the KK Mart mini-market that carries most basics and frozen chicken from New Zealand. Across from the mini market, on Mata’utu Street is the Cleanmaid Laundromat. Immigration is on Convent Street in Apia town. Expect to pay a fee if you want to extend your visitor permit beyond the 60-day limit.
Eateries: we liked Paddles on Beach Road, a short walk from the marina. Paddles has a nice porch and unobstructed view of the harbor. It is run by an Italian/Samoan family. The food is good, if a bit “fru-fru” for a sailor. A staple for cruisers is the “No-Name” restaurant across the street from the marina, near the Marina Hotel. It has good fish and chips, which you can eat on their airy porch or take-away and eat on your boat. Also, Samoa has a very good local beer called Valima Beer, enjoy it!
You will also want to go to Aggie Grey’s Hotel Restaurant at least once for a buffet dinner. They have theme nights and cookouts, and a fun Fia Fia local Samoan dinner extravaganza once per week. The granddaughter of Aggie Grey still runs this hotel and restaurant, she is a charming woman who loves kids and will invite you to come use her pool as a guest. Cruisers should always ask to use the pool for the day, even paying a small fee, rather than walk-in pretending you are a guest.
Health Basics: Samoa, like most of the pacific islands, is a developing nation in health care and sanitation. Although other sailors told us we could drink the water from the marina supply, after some bouts with stomach problems, we went to a water supply store on Falealili Street to get certified bottled water which we loaded into our 20 gallon water jugs and brought to the boat by taxi. Taxis are plentiful and cheap, but agree on a fare before you get in.
And, use your mosquito repellant, as mosquito-borne Dengue Fever (a generally non-serious flu-like illness) is a concern. Luckily, there is no malaria problem on Samoa. If you are staying for any amount of time and have health problems, we recommend the private clinic also on Falealili Street, just past Robert Louis Stevens’ home and museum, you will pay about $15 to see a doctor.